In 21st century America, most voters have ceased to regard adultery or homosexuality as barriers to holding senior posts in politics, the military, business or government-funded services. General Petraeus’s tangled life may have cost him is job as director of the CIA, but most Americans believe that it is no longer necessary to uphold traditional standards of private morality in order to wield public responsibility.

This is clear from a YouGov survey which people whether (a) married people who are found to be having an affair; and (b) openly gay people should be allowed to hold various posts. The following are the overall net results, showing the percentage saying hold minus the percentage saying quit. 

Net % Saying Hold Job, Minus % Saying Quit
  If found to have affair If openly gay
Manager of a local business +53 +64
Chief executive of major company +40 +58
Coach of a pro-sports team +38 +44
University professor +30 +52
Principal of a high school +16 +35
Mayor of a big city +12 +52
Army general +11 +33
Member of Congress +1 +51
Director of CIA -1 +40
Minister of a church -52 +6

As those figures show, large majorities are happy for openly gay people to hold all the posts we tested, except for church minister, where voters are fairly evenly divided (but with a small plurality still content to accept gay ministers). More people are unhappy with adulterous officials keeping their job, but they, too, are clearly outnumbered in seven out of ten cases. On two, member of Congress and director of the CIA, the public divides almost exactly equally. In only one case, church minister, do voters come down decisively on the side of resignation or dismissal.

That is not to say there are no divisions within American society. Here are some examples of how views vary by ideology:

Net % Saying Hold Job, Minus % Saying Quit
  If found to have affair If openly gay
Liberal Moderate Conservative Liberal Moderate Conservative
Manager of a local business +59 +56 +47 +89 +72 +47
Principal of a high school +46 +32 +2 +75 +49 +1
Army general +25 +18 -3 +75 +42 +0
Member of Congress +21 +5 -14 +80 +63 +21
Director of CIA +14 +2 -13 +81 +50 +7
Minister of a church -40 -45 -71 +61 +17 -39

Three big conclusions emerge from those figures.

First, there are marked differences between liberals and conservatives, especially on whether adultery or homosexuality should be a bar to someone become principal of a high school, an army general or a member of Congress. Second, moderates tend to agree more with liberals than with conservatives. Thirdly, even among Conservatives, there is now widespread, if far short of universal, acceptance that all the jobs we listed should be open to gays, apart from church minister.

It is a moot point how far these issues affect political loyalties, but they do pose a special problem for the Republican Party. Clearly a large section of its conservative-inclined base feels uneasy about people who depart from a traditional fidelity to family life holding public office; but the proportion of Americans who consistently demand such standards in public life comprises little more than one-tenth of the nation’s adults.  If their views provide a foundation for the party’s public platform, it risks alienating many of the people whose votes it will need at future election. Many Republicans may spit out the word “liberal” as a term of abuse; but liberal values now dominate the attitudes of most Americans on the relevance of private sexual morality to public life.


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